BEIRUT: Lebanon’s banks and schools were shut on Tuesday in a new wave of disruption as politicians struggled to agree on a new government to steer the country out of its worst economic crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
The top UN official in Lebanon called for the urgent formation of a cabinet made up of people known for their competence, which he said would be in a better position to appeal for international support.
“The financial and economic situation is critical, and the government and other authorities cannot wait any longer to start addressing it,” the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Jan Kubis, said after meeting President Michel Aoun along with a group of foreign ambassadors. The country urgently needs a new government to enact emergency economic measures. The head of an importers’ syndicate said restrictions on payments abroad were getting worse and further bank closures were not helping.
Aoun said formal consultations with MPs to nominate a new prime minister and form the cabinet would be held soon. Ahead of the formal discussions, politicians have been trying to agree on the composition of the government to replace caretaker Prime Minister Saad al Hariri’s outgoing cabinet.
Bank branches, which were closed for nearly half of October, shut again on fears for the safety of staff who have felt intimidated by customers demanding access to their money and protesters who have gathered at banks, a union leader said. The demonstrations have been fuelled by anger at the ruling elite, including several ageing former militia leaders, widely perceived to have overseen rampant state corruption for decades.
The economic crisis stems largely from a slowdown of capital inflows which has led to a scarcity of US dollars and generated a black market where the Lebanese pound has weakened below its official pegged rate.
A foreign exchange dealer said a dollar was costing 1,820 pounds on Tuesday, around the level cited on Friday when banks were last open and around 20 per cent weaker than the official pegged rate of 1,507.5 pounds.
Since reopening on November 1 after a two-week closure, banks have been seeking to prevent capital flight by imposing restrictions on dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad.